It’s already got to the stage where we can start to feel sorry for Quinton de Kock.
He has inherited a team on a downward spiral even as his own career is on the up. Aside from his promotion to the leadership role, de Kock has been South Africa’s leading run-scorer in all four series this season, and they have failed to win them all.
He is also, for all his expressiveness while batting and his energy in the field, not naturally comfortable in front of the camera. Now, however, he is required to speak to the media every few days. He is asked questions to which he doesn’t have answers, and expected to explain underperformance, of which he is not guilty.
Most of his answers have the words “not too sure” somewhere in them, usually prefaced with “to be honest with you”, just in case anyone doubts the sincerity of his uncertainty. But it may not be his fault that he doesn’t know why things have become as patchy as they have, with South Africa’s infrequent wins interspersed with some spectacular losses.
It may be the inevitable result of a new regime finding its feet in a talent pool whose depth is unknown, and within a system that doesn’t even know what the next domestic season will look like. The crises of the last few months have come home to roost and their effects are being felt most keenly in the on-field results.
“It’s just another blowout,” de Kock said after the T20 series was lost at Newlands. “Obviously it’s not good enough doing it twice in one series. We are going to have to have a good look at ourselves and ask some honest questions.”
Not just of themselves. Questions now need to be asked of those in charge of Cricket South Africa in the last few years, who lost the confidence of players including Vernon Philander, the first to say he retired prematurely because he didn’t think the suits had anything but their own interests at heart. He would not be the only one. South Africa have lost a generation of players in the last 18 months, many a year or two before their time. In that, they have lost experience and it means that the national side now finds itself “trying to give guys some sort of opportunity”, as de Kock put it, whether or not they are ready.
“Most of de Kock’s answers have the words “not too sure” somewhere in them, usually prefaced with “to be honest with you”, just in case anyone doubts the sincerity of his uncertainty”
Since touring India in September last year, South Africa have had nine Test debutants, three new ODI caps, and four maiden T20 internationals which speaks to how far and wide they have spread the net. The trouble is that they have not caught much. Only Rassie van der Dussen, who was part of the white-ball set-ups last summer but made his Test debut against England, has shown the consistency to merit a regular place. That means South Africa’s batting line-up, especially in the shorter formats, is a revolving door of experimentation. In T20s, nothing beyond the top two is set.
Though Faf du Plessis has returned in a senior-player capacity, David Miller has not stepped up, Jon-Jon Smuts has not been given a proper run, Temba Bavuma and Heinrich Klaasen’s were interrupted by injury and Pite van Biljon has not had a platform to build on. They have come unstuck against spin in stunning fashion, losing 13 wickets to Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar at 9.62 in this series and de Kock can’t say exactly why.
“I don’t think it’s a technical thing. It can boil down to situations in the game. Or it could also be a confidence thing, I am not sure,” he said. “I am not in the other batsmen’s minds. We’ve got some really good players of spin. But in saying that their two spinners bowled really well. They didn’t give much away.”
Aaron Finch suggested that scoreboard pressure – South Africa were chasing scores close to 200 in both Johannesburg and Cape Town – had something to do with his spinners’ success. He also indicated the surfaces, which slowed and gripped as innings went on, could have contributed but for de Kock, there’s only the disappointment of watching his line-up implode after they spoke about the opposite.
“When we chatted yesterday we had an honest conversation about fighting back,” he said. “We know they are a really strong team. When they are on top, they are hard to stop. We spoke about not giving them a sniff. They got a sniff and rode the wave.”
That summing-up could also apply to the bowling, which conceded 75 runs in the Powerplay at 114 in the first 10 overs. They escaped much of the post-series analysis apart from questions about why South Africa again chose to bench Dale Steyn, their most experienced quick. At least there, de Kock had an answer. “After Anrich’s performance, thought he deserved another chance,” de Kock said, referring to Nortje’s last-over heroics in Port Elizabeth. “We all know what Dale can do.”
So maybe South Africa are happy to sacrifice results for finding out what other players can do as they build towards the T20 World Cup but that still doesn’t put de Kock in an easy position. He still has to lead the team and he still has to front up and answer for how they perform. Is it already becoming too much?
“I am still taking it in my stride,” he said, and then like a real leader, accepted the responsibility for turning things around. “I am still learning. There’s a lot of things that I didn’t see when I was just a normal player. Now I am seeing things and learning about the game and the thinking behind decisions. I am asking a lot of advice from Faf. I hope I can get better and put the results on the board.”
Unlike du Plessis, de Kock has not been rested from the next rubber, a three-match ODI series against Australia that starts on Saturday, when he will hope things can start to turn around.